Every year we get dragged into the same arguments over the question of public celebrations of Chanukkah. The debate is so predictable that I can almost schedule it on my calendar. This year, it started early.
The decision of the United States Postal Service to issue a stamp commemorating Chanukkah was an uncomfortable one. Unlike the stamps which commemorate Christmas which generally utilize classical art depicting mother and child, the Chanukkah stamp makes no pretense about entangling government with religion. The stamp is delightful; the door is open to depictions of other religious observances which will not bring us so much pleasure.
The problem is exacerbated by the symbol chosen for the stamp, the chanukkiyah. As I have argued many times before, the chanukkiyah is a religious symbol; lighting it is a religious observance; its message is a religious message. To pretend otherwise is dishonest and diminishes the sacred nature of the observance. I am always distressed to hear those who erect giant chanukkiyot on public land claim that they are cultural symbols, and then proclaim the brakhot as they light the lamps acknowledging God as our Commander and Miracle-worker.
Perhaps the meditation recited in traditional circles following the candle-lighting would be helpful in clarifying the issue. (You can find it, for home use, on pages 242-243 in Siddur Sim Shalom.)
These candles we light are for the miracles and wonders, the redemptions and the battles which You performed for our ancestors at this season in ancient days through Your holy priests. All eight days of Chanukkah these lights are holy; we may not use them for any reason other than to behold them, in order that we thank and praise Your Great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your redemption.
The use of the Chanukkah lights for any purpose other than inspiring a consciousness of God's particular goodness to the Jews is a violation of the religious obligation to kindle the lamp. As a believer, I must have the integrity not to misuse the ritual I hold sacred. As a believer, I must object to those who would diminish the sacred aspects of my tradition.
By all means, buy the Chanukkah stamp and use it proudly; it is, after all, a picture, not a chanukkiyah. We will not see another like it for a long time.
But similarly, stay clear of the entanglement of Chanukkah candles and public land. Otherwise, we must choose between imposing a religious obligation on others or compromising the sacred nature of our own tradition.